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Being, Not Doing


In normal life, I have a very real tendency to quietly torture myself with little scraps of paper covered with to-do lists. I write them when I’m in meetings, when I am getting ready for bed at night and want to remember something for the next morning, and even in my head when I’m running (to transfer to paper when I get home). I admit to the self-torment and I’ve learned to balance it with better habits like meditation, exercise, and relaxation. But, once we hit mid-December and we can see holiday lights on the horizon, those lists start to multiply. Add in the pandemic and the increased amount of time it takes to do everything, and I get a little tense. It’s one of the things I don’t love about this time of year.


But of course, because this is the year we have all become focused on what’s worth fretting over and what’s not, I’ve given a lot of thought to this to-do list process. One thing I noticed right away is that almost every list includes at least a few of the items that were on the one I made the day before. I can attest to the fact that this repetition does not necessarily result in me actually completing the task. In fact, what it does is simply make the list slightly more distressing.


Every time I see one of those to-do lists, I feel a little bad about myself.

When I think about it, the reasoning behind the lists is that I might forget what I need to accomplish and then, in my sad fantasy, my whole world falls apart. So, if anything, each list is simply an amulet to prevent disaster. And the more lists there are … well, the more lists there are. And when I look at these little scribblings, they remind me that I expect way more of myself in a day or a week than is possible or even acceptable. And, I rarely have a list with a tick mark next to every item—a direct result of asking more of myself than I can actually do.


All of this reminds me that I live with an ongoing feeling that if there are things that need to be done, I should volunteer to do them. There is rarely a moment between the appearance of the need and my hand going in the air. And I’m not even trying to get a lot of credit. It’s just this underlying sense that I ought to be able to take care of it. Simply saying, “You know, I can’t really do that. I have too many other things I’m trying to do” never occurs to me. And I am very sure that I am not alone. I don’t know whether this is the behavior of people who were always trying to get a gold star in second grade, or it’s the result of all of us just feeling like we’re superhuman. But the fact is, we’re not.

And this is when we get to the real problem. Every time I see one of those to-do lists, I feel a little bad about myself. I start thinking about how I could get more done in a day than I do. And, of course, I could—we all could. But to what end? The best list would be one of reminders that we’re all doing just fine and that we don’t need to accomplish eight more things every day to feel OK about ourselves. As much as I understand this intellectually, it’s not my first thought.


But if we want to find something positive in the pandemic, I say it should be recognizing ways that we waste our time on impossible pursuits. For me, one of those quests is the one where I try to do everything that needs to be done. It’s all made up, you know? We do what we can do. I’d love to see 2021 as the year I take that in—the year I let myself open to each day and do what actually really needs to be done. I’m hoping it’s the year I don’t try to outwork myself or anyone else—the year I draw some lines and feel good about doing it. Life is short—the big, big lesson of 2020. Give me the grace to move more slowly and intentionally in 2021, and to spend more time being and less time doing.